Sunday before last I opened up my Twitter feed to find Sherry Turkle getting pummeled for her opinion piece in the Sunday NY Times, “The Flight From Conversation.” Rarely has my feed spoken with such strident uniformity; Turkle had clearly struck a nerve. With other more pressing commitments demanding my attention, however, I bookmarked the essay and several of the responses that came in over the next few days. A little over a week later, the storm having mostly blown over, I want to throw in my belated two cents.
Critics noted that Turkle presented a false dichotomy. Conversations can still happen even in a world that includes social media and text messaging. This is true in principle, of course. And, in principle, I suspect Turkle would agree. But I’m not sure this is really the best way of approaching these sorts of concerns.
Perhaps it would be better to reframe the issue in terms of presence. Granting that, in the abstract, the use of electronic forms of communication does not necessarily preclude the possibility of conversation, and granting, of course, that not every conversation is nor ought to be of the deep and absorbing variety, it seems worthwhile to explore how actual instances of face-to-face conversation might be affected by the kinds of technology Turkle has in view.
And to narrow our focus even further, I’ll focus on the cellular phone. It is after all the cellular phone that materializes electronic communication across the whole field of our experience, and it is the materiality of the cellular phone that presents itself in the context of face-to-face conversation.
It seemed to me that Turkle’s concerns were strongest when they dealt with the manner in which technology impinges on face-to-face communication. And on this point many of her critics agreed with her concerns even while they disagreed with the manner in which they were packaged. This is also the aspect of Turkle’s work that seems to resonate most widely. After all, much to her critics bemusement, the threaded comments seemed mostly to validate Turkle’s point-of-view.
It is easy to see why. Most of us have been annoyed by someone who was unable to give another human being their undivided attention for more than seconds at a time. And perhaps more significantly, most of us have felt the pull to do same. We have struggled to keep our attention focused on the person talking to us as we know we ought to, and we know we ought to because some shred of our humanity remains intact and we know very well that the person in front of us is more significant than the text that just made our phone vibrate in our pocket. We have been on both ends of the kind of distractedness that the mere presence of a smartphone can occasion, and we are alive enough to be troubled by it. We begin to feel the force of Simone Weil’s judgment: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
And so Turkle’s piece, and others like it, resonate despite the theoretical shortcomings that make certain scholars cringe. After all, what difference does it make that some study showed that a statistically significant portion of the population reports feeling less lonely when using social media if I can’t get the person standing two feet away from me to treat me with the barest level of decency.
The question remains, however, “Are smartphones at fault?” This is always the question. Is Google making us stupid? Is Facebook making us lonely? Are smartphones ruining face-to-face conversation? Put that way, I might say, “No, not exactly.” That’s usually not the best way of stating the question. Rather than begin with a loaded question, perhaps it’s better simply to seek clarity and understanding. What is happening when cellular phones become part of an environment that also consists of two people engaged in conversation?
Out of the many possible approaches to this question, it is the path offered by Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “intentional arc” that I want to take. Merleau-Ponty writes:
“The life of consciousness – cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life – is subtended by an ‘intentional arc’ which projects round about us our past, our future, [and] our human setting ….”
Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher whose work has built on Merleau-Ponty’s, adds this explanatory note:
“It is crucial that the agent does not merely receive input passively and then process it. Rather, the agent is already set to respond to the solicitations of things. The agent sees things from some perspective and sees them as affording certain actions. What the affordances are depends on past experience with that sort of thing in that sort of situation.”
Here’s what all of this amounts to. The “intentional arc” describes the manner in which our experience and perception is shaped by what we intend. Intending here means something more than what we mean when we say “I intended to get up early” or “I intend to go to the store later.” Intention in this sense refers to a mostly non-conscious work of perceiving the world and how that perceiving is shaped by what we are doing or aim to do. Our perception, in other words, is always already interpreting reality rather than simply registering it as a pure fact.
This work of perception-as-interpretation builds up over time as an assortment of “I cans” carried or remembered by our bodies. This assortment becomes part of the background, or pre-understanding, that we bring to bear on new situations. And this is how our intentional arc “projects round about us our past, our future.”
What is particularly interesting for our purposes is how the insertion of a tool into our experience reconfigures the “intentional arc” that is supporting our experience. The phenomenon is neatly captured by the expression, “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” This line suggests that how we perceive our environment is shaped by the mere presence of a tool in hand. (Notice, by the way, how this “effect” is registered even before the tool is used.)
Merleau-Ponty might analyze the situation as follows: The feel of a hammer in hand, especially given prior use of a hammer, transforms how the environment presents itself to us. Aspects of the environment that would not have presented themselves as things-to-be-struck now do. Our interpretive perception interprets differently. Our seeing-as is altered. New possibilities suggest themselves. The affordances presented to us by our environment are re-ordered.
Try this at home, go pick up a hammer, or for that matter any object you can hold in hand that is weighted on one end. See what you feel. Hold it and look around you and pay really close attention to the way your perceive these objects. Actually, on second thought, don’t try this at home.
Another example, perhaps more readily apprehended (and less fraught with potential danger) is offered by the camera. With camera in hand our environment presents itself differently to us. I would go so far as to suggest that we see differently when we see with camera in hand. The concrete objectivity of the world has not changed, but the manner in which our perception interprets the world has; and this change was effected by the presence of a tool in hand (even prior to its use).
In this sense, the tool does have a certain causal force, it causes the environment to present itself differently to the user. It may not cause action, but it invites it. It causes the environment to hail the user in a new way.
Returning to the situation with which we began, we can ask again how the presence of a smartphone reconfigures face-to-face conversation. How does it alter the intentional arc that suspends the act of conversation? I first began thinking through this question by focusing on the phone itself, but this approach foreclosed itself; it wasn’t proving to be very helpful to me. But then I thought about the act of conversation itself and the question of presence. What would it mean to be fully present to one another and what difference would this make for the act of conversing?
I realized then that the really interesting dynamic involved what two people offered to one another in the act of conversing face-to-face. Presence was not a uni-directional phenomenon involving the intentionality of each partner individually. Presence was not something one person achieved. Rather presence emerged from the manner in which the act of conversation coupled the intentionality of each individual. To borrow Merleau-Ponty’s lingo (and give it my own somewhat sappy twist), two intentional arcs come together to form a circle of presence.
Merleau-Ponty spoke of our body’s natural tendency to seek an “optimal grip” on our environment. In face-to-face conversation, our bodies seek an optimal grip as well. While our conscious attention is focused on words and their meaning, our fuller perceptive capabilities are engaged in reading the whole environment. In conversation, then, each person becomes a part of a field of communication that includes, but is not limited to verbal expression. To put it another way, our intentional arc includes acts of interpretative perception of the other’s body as well as their words.
When we perceive eyes and hands, facial gestures and posture we perceive these not merely as eyes or hands but as eyes that signify, hands that mean, etc. We are attuned to much more than the words a person offers to us. Conversation involves the whole body in an act of holistic communication. And we perceive much of that communication at a non-conscious level; perceiving these dynamics becomes a part of our pre-understanding applied to the act of conversation.
But this dynamic that enriches and shapes face-to-face communication depends on each person offering themselves up to be read in certain ways. Our attention intends the other’s body as a nexus of communication, but when the other’s body is not engaged in the act of conversation, dissonance results and presence is broken.
Back to the smartphone. When the smartphone enters into the dynamic it disrupts the body’s communicative patterns. Gestures, eye contact, posture, facial expression — all of it is altered. It no longer means in the way our body is used to perceiving meaning. Perception finds it impossible to achieve an optimal grip on the embodied interaction. And because our bodies give and receive this sort of communication tacitly and often in remarkably subtle ways, we may not be conscious of this dissonance in the act of conversation. We may only register a certain feeling of being out of sync, a certain feeling that something is off. Presence fails to emerge and conversation, of the sort that Turkle champions, indeed, of the sort we all acknowledge as one of the great consolations offered to us in this world — that kind of conversation becomes more difficult to achieve. Given the bodily dimensions of face-to-face conversation, I’m not sure it could be otherwise.
It is not that “social media” in some abstract generic form or the practice of texting in general that threatens conversation. It is the concrete materiality of the device entering into the intentional arcs of our perceiving and meaning-ful bodies engaged in face-to-face communication that is troublesome.